Ranked Amateurs

A still from Blue Chips

In this month’s installment of Aspect Ratio, Brandon compares the new anti-NCAA documentary Schooled and the classic college basketball corruption movie Blue Chips

As with most things that are prominently featured on television, the recently concluded NCAA tournament is made of money. A lot of it. $10.8 billion dollars to be exact. Money changes hands in innumerable ways – Turner Broadcasting and CBS pay the NCAA that enormous sum over fourteen years, with the organization parcelling out $740 million dollars annually to its member institutions, with those same institutions employing the highest paid public servants in all 50 states — the overwhelming majority of whom are college basketball or football coaches. Generally when broadcasters pay for the rights to broadcast a program in which skill intensive labor goes into its making, the folks putting on the show see a significant portion of windfall. The performers on Downton Abbey or even The Real Housewives of Atlanta don’t keep us entertained for free, after all.

When it comes to the vast treasure trove the NCAA commanded from Turner and CBS however, one supported by millions around the country who endure the most asinine Pizza Hut or Progressive Insurance commercials in order to watch unpaid men play basketball in packed arenas, a whole different set of rules applies. The athletes see no windfall at all, other than, room, board and “training” (i.e. a college education). Regardless of how desirable or valuable a college education is, that this situation almost completely mirrors the definition of indentured servitude (“A person who is bonded or contracted to work for another for a specified time, in exchange for learning a trade or for travel expenses.”) shouldn’t escape us. With such manifestly unfair labor relations, how can you, sports disdaining, labor supporting, coastal liberal of my imagination, avoid your obligation to stand aghast at such a spectacle of injustice? Where is your moral outrage?

It appears to have been swallowed by race. The most visible college athletes, the ones who demand so much attention that two multinationals would pay a 11-figure sum to broadcast their games are overwhelmingly African-American. Sixty-one percent of men’s college basketball players in the United States were blacks in 2010, despite blacks making up only 15 percent of college enrollment overall in 2011. Is it any surprise that, according to a recent poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News, whites opposed paying college athletes 73-24 while non-white respondents favored paying the players by a 51-46 margin? When it comes to public support for extracting value from the unpaid labor of negroes, it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Released by Strand Releasing on home video last fall after a debuting on Epix TV, Trevor Martin, Jonathan Paley, and Ross Finkel’s film Schooled: The Price of College Sports treats this situation like the ethical slime pit that it is. The NCAA, as the historian Taylor Branch noted in his recent e-book The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA (upon which Schooled is based) meets all the definitions of the term that’s almost exclusively preceded in English by the word “drug.” A cartel is a formal organization of producers and manufacturers (in this case, makers of lucrative sports entertainment) that under normal circumstances would compete but, instead, collude to fix prices, marketing, and production to maximize individual members’ profits by reducing competition and labor costs. The NCAA has gone so far as to ban paying players, setting the cost at room and board.

This trio of directors elegantly put forth their case, interviewing a wide range of individuals, from sportscasters Bob Costas and Jay Bilas to journalists like Frank Deford, all of whom offer perspectives that damn the status quo, even though they can’t agree on a solution. Ed O’Bannon, the mid-’90s UCLA basketball star who is at the center of a lawsuit stemming from the use of his likeness in EA Sports NCAA Basketball video games, gets profiled extensively, as does recent UCLA running back Jonathan Franklin, who we glimpse playing EA Sports NCAA football as himself and walking by his own jersey in the University bookstore. NCAA rules bar him from compensation for either one. College administrators and ex-NCAA staffers get to say their piece, but it’s clear that the picture is aligned with the argument Branch first put forth in his Atlantic article, “The Shame of College Sports” and the subsequent e-book. Ex-University of Tennessee Volunteer and current Houston Texans running back Arian Foster tells the hIS story of coming from a family that struggled to make ends meet, to an environment where he was expected to work 80 hours a week as a football player for no pay while making little, if any use, of the “free” education at his disposal. Unable to buy food for himself despite his scholarship and status as a star football player with 80,000 admirers cheering for him six Saturdays a year,  Foster describes how he had to turn to his football coach, the highest paid public employee in the state of Tennessee, to bring him tacos, even though he knew it was an NCAA violation that put his future at risk.

The picture, which presents its case in standard balance of talking head/verite B-roll/archival footage, profiles several NCAA athletes who ran afoul of the shadowy non-profit’s byzantine and arbitrary rules. Devon Ramsay for instance, an ex-football player at North Carolina, lost his scholarship because of a faux pas concerning a tutor who reworded several sentences of his in a paper his Freshman year, something that was done without his consent. In example after example, the organization publicly shames young men who have simply tried to provide for themselves and their families using their hard-won and very profitable skills. The NCAA’s critics, like New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, NFL players association President Dominique Foxworth, and Branch himself make a case that the system can’t sustain itself for much longer; it’s choking on its own greed.

***

In the film Blue Chips, which somewhat astoundingly opened 20 winters ago, college basketball coaches have no problem bringing their star players tacos. The movie stars a snarling, obscenely committed Nick Nolte as a college basketball coach named Pete Bell. He’s the long time coach at a UCLA-esque center for higher learning known only as Western, a fictional school which shares the Bruins blue and gold color scheme and SoCal digs. They’ve won three national titles during his tenure, but a fourth doesn’t seem to be coming soon; the movie begins with a halftime tirade during the last game of coach Bell’s worst season. It’s a famously, perhaps unintentionally comedic scene, one which displays Nolte’s gift for brusque, mildly terrifying haranguing that he also put to startling effect in his other great roles from that era — Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and Paul Schrader’s Affliction. Bell berates his players for their effort, attitude, and choices with the vehement anger and incivility that only unaccountably powerful figures like college basketball coaches can get away with at their work place. He leaves the room twice, only to return for more each time. The take away in this scene, like so many in this deeply confused, oddly fun-filled, ultimately troubling film is hidden beneath all the masculine bravado and sports cliché: Would anyone in their right mind want this man yelling at their children for four years?

It doesn’t matter. In the alternative universe of the film, one in which 1993 Rick Pitino is coaching a team called Texas Southern and the NCAA is called the NCSA, Western has to lose this game. Bell has to have the urgent need to get back to the top at any costs, and so he does. Although he doesn’t allow his players to be paid under the table by boosters and alumni, the movie suggests this is common practice among his competitors (played, with group aplomb during remarkably goofy recruiting scenes, by real life coaches like Jerry Tarkanian and Jim Boeheim). With his team reeling and the hot glare of the local sports media (represented by an underutilized Ed O’Neill, as the local sports reporter who is just sure Bell has been running a “dirty” program) heating up around him, he decides to recruit three top players by any means necessary.

For Bell, that means a second act spent lying about his religion to suit the tastes of the parents whose living rooms he visits. To the wealthy president of the alumni association (the late, great J.T. Walsh), however, this means something entirely different; a new tractor for the shrewd country family of Ricky Roe, a white power forward from Indiana farm country (Matt Nover), and a new job and new house for the hard-bargaining inner city mother (Alfe Woodard) of black point guard Butch McRae (NBA great Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway) from the south side of Chicago. The key recruit however is a hulking center named Neon Beaudeux whose only basketball experience is bayou pick up games in front of children who look like extras from Beasts of the Southern Wild, and one wily scout who tips off Bell. He’s played by Shaquille O’Neal — also a Louisiana native who spent one year in college before heading off to the NBA — as a sly and intelligent kid with a 560 SAT score. “He’s raw, but his upside is enormous,” intones the off-the-grid scout who leads Bell through thickets of dense forests in order to watch him play.

O’Neal’s character isn’t sure if he likes playing basketball or if he wants to go to college. The alumni super villain buys him a car he doesn’t want. Bell and the athletic director (played stiffly by NBA legend Bob Cousy) act as if they don’t know anything. Bell sets him up with his ex-wife (Mary McDonnell) as a tutor and she brings his test scores up to an acceptable level, even though the movie suggests he’s too clever, or too consumed with reactionary notions of blackness, for college. The only time we see him in class, in perfect fake afrocentric early 90s style, he complains in an 19th century English literature class that he isn’t studying black authors, even though he can’t, or doesn’t, name any. Having deftly set us up to feel unburdened by his inevitable departure for the NBA after one year, the movie can return to its real agenda: defending a hazy, misconceived notion of amateurism.

The key scene comes 47 minutes in, when Mr. Alumni President runs into Bell at a bar. The two busty blondes on his arm and the gleam of corruption in his eyes immediate mark Walsh’s character and his compliments to Bell on reprimanding a sports writer during his weekly press conference fall on deaf ears with the gruff coach. “Why do you hate me so much,” Walsh’s character asks, reading the signs. Apparently Bell thinks the 50,000 folks in this humongous state school’s alumni association are “obnoxious slobs.” An argument ensues, the now angry booster following Bell to a nearby parking lot, where he admits to the coach that he knows exactly how much money it will take to bring the top recruits to Western, that his money has been effectively laundered, and that he’s funneled money to many of the players on the school’s top-ten football team. Then he makes the most honest and morally sound comment in the entire film: “These athletes generate millions of dollars for the University. What do they get? Nothing. What do you get? You get a multi-year contract, you get a six-figure shoe deal so your team can be a walking billboard, and that is all legal. Then you get another for that lousy TV show. We owe them this money!” It’s so sound in fact, and Nolte’s retorts are so milquetoast (“You got a future in politics asshole, why don’t you run for office?”) that the movie has the gin up his participation in a points-shaving scandal that makes no sense in order to discredit his common-sense rant.

Rickie Roe, the business-savvy Indiana pussy hound, walks in after a workout but before he’s committed to say that he wants to go to Western, but he’ll need $30,000 for his services. Bell angrily kicks him out of the coaches’ room, but he ends up on the roster and the movie never mentions it again, so we can assume he got the money and, as the closing title cards reveal, blew out his knee and returned to the farm — poetic justice required by the movie’s bogus moral logic. Soon Bell has the best team in the country. He beats Bob Knight’s number-one ranked Indiana in the first game of the season, but the guilt of knowing his players have taken money and the points shaving scandal is too much for him — he resigns in a big, grandstanding press conference at the end of the game, and immediately walks to the ghetto.

I wish I were joking, but the joke is all Friedkin’s. Bell finds some black pre-teens who are out playing way past their bedtime and have surely never seen a white man in his 50s with a v-neck sweater on interrupt their pick up game — or any pick up game — in their lives. He begins to coach them and they happily accept the coaching, instead of running away in fear or starring at him in dismay or calling him a cracker. The coda of the movie suggests maybe they’ll be happily exploited, without any desire to profit from the skills he helps them hone, so Bell and his ex-wife can feel like their fantasy of fair amateurism is coherent or defensible. Deeply disillusioned and disillusioning, Blue Chips wants to reinstate a world that never existed in the first place, one where honor and integrity can only grow out of exploited labor.

***

This spectacle of injustice, the one exposed in Schooled and fretted over but ultimately supported in Blue Chips, might not be around much longer. A couple weeks ago representatives from Northwestern University’s football team, along with members of an organization called the College Athletes Players Association, went to Washington to meet with various members of Congress. Last winter the CAPA petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to allow members of the Wildcats football team to unionize. A man named Peter Ohr, the regional NLRB director in Chicago, ruled recently that the Northwestern football players did have the right to unionize. Now the NCAA has conceded the food rule: players can have all the snacks they want!

The idea that one day soon, players in college basketball and football — the two revenue-generating collegiate sports — may soon command their market value scares a lot of people. They likely won’t make as much as Lamar Alexander, but it didn’t stop the Tennessee Senator and ex-Presidential candidate from lamenting when word of the National Labor Relations Board ruling came out, “Imagine a university’s basketball players striking before a Sweet 16 game demanding shorter practices, bigger dorm rooms, better food, and no classes before 11 a.m.” Imagine indeed.

Amateur sports is a relation that has existed for so long, with the general public’s acquiescence if not outright approval, that it’s hard to imagine an alternative. Even the most rational commentators struggle for another way to do business, not just cartoonish right-wingers like Alexander — a man who’s clearly happy to keep making less than the football coach, but not so enamored with the idea of a Tennessee running back being able to feed himself. Maybe he’ll buy the next Arian Foster some tacos. But in the meantime, the NCAA is in untenable bind and, as the value of a college education in the work force continues to dwindle, plugging holes in their already sinking amateurism argument is going to become increasingly difficult. Here’s hoping whomever winds up in the Final Four next spring, the players lining up for that early evening tip off do what’s in everyone’s best interest: When they say jump, you say, “How much?”